Joni Mitchell won a Grammy for best pop album in 1996 and joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, but she hasn't let the recognition give her a false sense of confidence. "Accolades and honors/One false move and you're a goner," she sings, exploring the ups and downs of the music business on the title track of her new album, "Taming the Tiger."
Mitchell has been in the public eye a lot lately, and not just when making acceptance speeches. She has made a tentative return to the concert trail -- in August, she sang at the "Day in the Garden" concert at the original Woodstock Festival site in Bethel, N.Y., and she'll be at Madison Square Garden with Bob Dylan Nov. 1. Plus, everyone from Sarah McLachlan to the Artist (formerly known as Prince) has cited her as an influence, and Janet Jackson sampled her "Big Yellow Taxi" on "Got 'Til It's Gone." If this pioneering singer-songwriter is ever going to benefit from the "star-maker machinery behind the popular song" -- as she described the music biz in 1974's "Free Man In Paris" -- now is the time. Though she is not backing off from the airy, jazz-influenced sounds that have dominated her albums of the last two decades, "Taming the Tiger" is her most accessible album of that era.
She sounds playful and animated again, purring "nice kitty, kitty" and decrying the music industry's "junkfood for juveniles" on the title track; describing a gaudy side show, with a barker audible in the background, in "Harlem in Havana"; and snarling "lawyers and loan sharks are laying America to waste" on "No Apologies." Mitchell is also in a feisty mood musically. Grunge-rock power chords ground "Lead Balloon," while "Face Lift" floats on billows of synthesized strings. "Harlem in Havana" features some trendy electronic dance beats. Five songs benefit from Wayne Shorter's lyrical sax playing.
This is a gorgeous album, as rich in tone and texture as any of Mitchell's past work. One of the first pop singers to use unconventional guitar tunings, Mitchell colors every song differently here by squeezing a broad range of sounds out of a guitar synthesizer.
For all its restless creativity, "Taming the Tiger" isn't all fun and games. Mitchell confronts heartbreak in mournful, resigned songs like "Man From Mars" (where she sings "Since I lost you/I can't get through the day/Without at least one big boo hoo") and "Stay In Touch." Yet both these exercises in melancholia are immediately followed by hopeful songs of new love -- "Love Puts On a New Face" and "Face Lift," respectively. The latter song is also cleverly self-mocking. Mitchell relates a conversation where she complains, "Love takes so much courage," only to be upbraided: "You've seen too many movies, Joni ... Snap out of it."
The album's only serious misstep is "My Best To You," a lullaby undercut by mannered singing, distracting synth squiggles, and a percussion pattern that's out of synch with the rest of the music. This is a simple song, full of lines like "Never be unkind" and "May your skies be blue," but Mitchell is unable to deliver it with the directness it requires. Her need to constantly reinvent the wheel is a detriment here. But without this trait, the rest of "Taming the Tiger" wouldn't be so compelling.
Mitchell's 1996 Grammy win for the uneven "Turbulent Indigo" might have been due to sentimentality. Veteran artists, after all, tend to win Grammys whether or not they deserve them. But "Taming the Tiger" is strong enough to demand consideration on its own merits.